Down the street from me lives a woman named Vicki who has outfitted her cramped double garage as a miniature flea market. I often walk my dogs by her place and for weeks I’ve been too shy to stop and introduce myself, but for some reason the other day I just did it, pulled in by the odd assortment of crap she’s collected and arranged so lovingly.
Vicki’s lived in my Oakland neighborhood for 26 years; she grew up in Pasadena and in the 1970s she followed a boyfriend to Berkeley and never left. Her eyes are green, in striking contrast to her lined, tanned skin and shoulder-length white hair. In a gravelly smoker’s voice she talks about hitching rides from Pasadena to Hollywood back in the day, running into Jim Morrison on Sunset Boulevard when she and her girlfriends were cute and getting in a car with a stranger wasn’t dangerous.
She started collecting stuff as a kid, when she and her mother would go to thrift stores on weekends. Now not only does she hunt for new items herself around the greater Bay Area, but friends give her things they think she’ll like.
On one bookcase she’s packed at least 50 LPs (“Glen Miller in Hollywood,” “Earl Klugh: Soda Fountain Shuffle,” “The Supremes Sing”), a shoebox full of 8-track cassettes, VHS videos (Moulin Rouge shares space with Richard Simmons) and a bunch of music CDs. Catty-corner to this stands a chipped green shelf with more than 20 different elephant figurines of all different sizes and colors. A Marge Simpson doll peeks out of a basket jammed with Barbies; along one wall Vicki’s hung a rack for clothes that sags under the weight of pair after pair of jeans, as well as a sage-green, boiled wool jacket with faux fur collar, a bunch of plain ole’ button down oxfords, and a black dress with a fluffy tulle skirt. In a glass-topped jewelry case Vicki’s got chunky brooches studded with turquoise and a pair of pink plastic dangle earrings the size of 50-cent pieces. There’s a hamster cage, a rattling cluster of at least two dozen novelty keychains, a stack of tatted lace handkerchiefs, and piles of plant pots. (Believe me, all this is only a fraction of what’s in there.)
I myself find clutter unbearable and have been known to throw out things I really should have kept, just for the sake of clearing space. But in fact, collecting (hoarding?) is in my DNA – both sets of grandparents achieved Master Level during their lifetimes. Not only was every room in my paternal grandparents’ trailer in Banning, CA, packed with stuff – I could barely walk around the fold-out bed in their extra room, crammed as it was with tools and materials for the crafts my grandma made – but the attached porch was full too, with only a single trail leading from the porch steps to the front door.
So Vicki’s garage resonates with a particular nostalgia. I’m drawn to the sheer volume of objects and the musty, decaying smell of old paperbacks. And I’m drawn to Vicki, who stands smoking on the sidewalk, her face open and friendly. For some reason this afternoon the place seems like an act of civil disobedience, a cheerful “Fuck you” to the culture’s relentless push toward the new and shiny and unblemished, rather than a sign of mental illness. And Vicki? She’s not a hoarder – she’s a curator.